How to Have Great White Elephant Conversations

Date: Jun 07 2012

Franco Lombardo

Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak; courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen. 
- Winston Churchill 

Wikipedia interprets the “elephant in the room” as a metaphor for an obvious truth that is either ignored or remains unaddressed. A “white elephant” is also an idiom for a valuable but burdensome possession that the owner cannot easily dispose of. 
White elephants (albino elephants) have long been regarded as sacred in Thailand. Legend has it that if a Thai king became dissatisfied with a subject he would give him a white elephant, because such a gift, in most cases, would lead to financial ruin. The gift is at once both a blessing and a curse. 
Consider that the great white elephant most commonly uncovered in wealthy families is usually representative of things like the responsibility of ownership, power and money. As the myth goes, if one is given these kinds of things, the gift rapidly becomes a burden that ultimately destroys the recipient.   
What if the whole process of succession planning and wealth transition began with a discussion designed to help families identify their “great white elephants”? What if such a discussion supported the family in naming, owning, and even embracing the great white elephant for all that it is, as opposed to continuing to ignore it in the hopes that it goes away? If such an approach were to happen, what would the outcome look like for families and the advisors that serve them? 
Certainly it would be a bit more anxiety provoking, since both the advisor and families would have to be willing to address the unspoken feelings and unaddressed issues which exist as emotional undercurrents. The proverbial great white elephants would have to be brought into the light and fully discussed. But it is this very discussion that increases the likelihood of a successful family leadership transition or wealth transfer.  
There are five distinct components to a conversational process that when applied to a succession planning and wealth transition process will greatly reduce its chances of failure. 
  1. Clarity with respect to your values and what matters most to you and your great white elephants as they relate to ownership, power and money. 
  2. Congruency in your behaviors, actions and way of being with respect to your values and your great white elephants.
  3. Connection first with yourself and later with others about your values and great white elephants.
  4. Conversations you must be willing to have with yourself and others regarding your values and great white elephants.
  5. Commitment to what you want to create for yourself and your family based on your values and theirs which will keep the great white elephants away. Get clear on your values, live by them in a way that aligns your values with your actions.

Franco Lombardo is a managing director at Veritage and the author of “Life After Wealth, When is Enough, Enough?”, “Money Motto, The Path to Authentic Wealth’” and “Great White Elephant, Why Rich Kids Hate Their Parents!”